Although the right to privacy is not explicitly stated in the U.S. Constitution, the Supreme Court has determined that the right does exist. In Rebecca Skloot's nonfiction book The Immortal Life...
Although the right to privacy is not explicitly stated in the U.S. Constitution, the Supreme Court has determined that the right does exist. In Rebecca Skloot's nonfiction book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the Lacks family's right to privacy was violated. How important is the right to privacy? How has the right evolved over time? How has it challenged by emergent technologies? How have groups of people like African Americans, women, and immigrants fought for legislation to protect their right to privacy?
The Bill of Rights is comprised of the first ten amendments to the Constitution. The explicit rights to speech, religion, etc., were added to the Constitution subsequent to its original passage. The U.S. Supreme Court consistently reaffirmed that the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments, which guarantee, respectively, the right to be protected against unwarranted or unreasonable searches and seizures of property, and the right to be secure from any laws that would “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law . . .” do protect the right to privacy.
Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks portrays one family’s efforts at finding the line between the legitimate right to privacy and the public’s “right” to know. The Lacks case transcended the issue of “right to know” because of the enormous medicinal benefits her surviving tissue provided to the medical world. Skloot writes about Henrietta Lacks, whose terminal case of cancer involved the removal of tissue for testing. Cells removed and processed by laboratories were subsequently disseminated widely and used in medical research. Whether this constituted an invasion of her and her family’s right to privacy was seriously debated.
An element of the issue involves the intrinsically dehumanizing nature of some medical research. As Skloot quoted one researcher as noting,
“Scientists don’t like to think of [Lacks’] cells as being little bits of Henrietta because it’s much easier to do science when you dissociate your materials from the people they come from . . .”
The issue of privacy in the context of medical research and the unauthorized exploitation of patient tissue samples is a theme running throughout the book. About Victor McKusick, a geneticist working with cells from the Lacks family tissue, Skloot writes:
“McKusick’s research on the Lacks family coincided with the beginning of a new era of genetic research . . . With the ability to identify genes from a blood sample or even a single cell, the risk of a blood draw was no longer just a minor infection or the pain of a needle stick – it was that someone could uncover your genetic information. It was about violation of privacy.”
The right to privacy has been fought less on racial or gender grounds than on political grounds. Advocates of both the left and the right in the United States have decried government invasions of the public’s privacy. Today, many Americans are concerned about revelations that the National Security Agency conducts surveillance of cell phone and internet communications. Advances in surveillance technology, including the use of unmanned “drones” to gather information, including photographic and electronic information, on potential terrorist suspects have created perhaps the greatest threat to Americans’ right to privacy.
The right to privacy is among the most important rights enjoyed by Americans. It is a right, as with free speech, that is at the very core of this country’s democratic values and traditions. Without that right, America as we know it ceases to exist. That said, the complicated legal and moral issues surrounding the story of Henrietta Lacks exist on a separate plane from those involving the pursuit of threats to national security. There could be, however, a thinner line between the two than some might recognize.